Puerto Rico's Internet Voting Plan Threatens Election Security: ACLU

Jan 30, 2020
Originally published on January 30, 2020 5:23 pm

Puerto Ricans could be casting their ballots online only in the next eight years, according to a bill that is expected to pass this week.

Civil liberties advocates are ringing alarm bells over this plan to shift voting online, warning that the move threatens election security and voting rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union and its Puerto Rico chapter urged the island's governor, Wanda Vázquez, to veto a bill containing the Internet voting plan.

"There is no secure way to hold elections online," they wrote in a letter to the governor on Wednesday.

"This measure is misguided, dangerous, and will needlessly expose Puerto Rico's voting system to hacking and disruption." The ACLU said "such disruption will only result in greater public mistrust of key democratic institutions."

The online voting plan is part of a bill to reform the U.S. territory's electoral code. The bill is expected to be approved by the legislature by the end of this week.

The measure calls for Puerto Rico's electoral commission to create an Internet voting program that could overhaul the way all the island's citizens cast their ballots within eight years.

The plan starts with a pilot project to let voters who are eligible vote early or absentee to cast their ballots over the Internet in this November's general election. The second phase expands the option to vote online to all voters in the 2024 election.

In 2028, the electoral commission will decide whether online voting would be the only method of casting a ballot.

The bill does not include details about how online voting would be conducted or what security would be required.

The debate over Internet voting pits the desire to expand access against fears over security. Advocates of online voting argue that using technology to make voting as simple as a tap on a smartphone screen can boost turnout. Opponents say it raises too many risks that votes will be hacked or otherwise interfered with, effectively disenfranchising people.

The text of Puerto Rico's bill says letting people vote over the Internet would make voting easier and more accessible. The bill was introduced by Thomas Rivera Schatz, the president of Puerto Rico's senate. He did not respond to requests for comment.

The ACLU says the plan raises the risk of election interference, threatening fundamental rights.

"The right to vote isn't just the right to cast a ballot, but also to have your vote count," said Mayte Bayolo, legislative attorney for the ACLU of Puerto Rico.

"Our concern is not only that the voting rights of the Puerto Rican population will run the risk of being tampered with, but also that they won't necessarily know that their vote counted."

The ACLU is also concerned that Puerto Rico's electrical infrastructure, which has been badly damaged by 2017's Hurricane Maria and recent earthquakes, cannot support the voting plan.

"Internet voting and online technology depends on electricity," Bayolo said.

Other U.S. states and counties have experimented with voting using smartphone apps and other online methods — although none as sweeping as Puerto Rico's proposal.

Most security experts oppose online voting proposals, saying the technology does not exist to ensure votes cast by Internet can be kept secure.

"Unfortunately, as convenient as it would be to just cast our votes online, the technology isn't there to do it safely," said Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan who studies election security. He is contributing a statement laying out security concerns to the ACLU's campaign against Puerto Rico's plan.

Securing Internet votes requires protecting election servers from nation-state hackers, protecting voters' smartphones and computers, and securely verifying voters' identities, Halderman said.

Those challenges are particularly difficult in elections, where ballots must be kept secret and votes must be tallied correctly.

He pointed to the 2016 election, when Russians used cyberattacks to target voting infrastructure and presidential campaigns.

"It should be just common sense that we want to keep ballots as far away from the Internet as we can," he said.

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In Puerto Rico, there is a push to shift voting entirely online in the next eight years. As early as this November, some voters will be casting ballots over the Internet. Proponents of online elections say technology can make it easier for more people to vote, while civil liberties advocates are warning that Puerto Rico's plan threatens election security and voting rights. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has more.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Puerto Rico is overhauling the way it holds elections, and one big item is modernizing the way people vote. A bill that's expected to pass this week is pushing Internet voting. That's got some people on the island worried.

MAYTE BAYOLO: Our main concern is that online voting is not secure.

BOND: Mayte Bayolo is legislative attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico.

BAYOLO: The right to vote isn't just the right to cast a ballot but also to have your vote count.

BOND: Her concern is that the plan raises too many risks.

BAYOLO: Online voting or even collecting electronic voting machines to a server or any sort of software online runs the risk of hacking and tampering of the vote.

BOND: The Puerto Rico and national ACLUs are urging the territory's governor, Wanda Vazquez, to veto the bill. The proposed plan starts with giving absentee and early voters the option to vote online this year. That would extend to all voters in 2024. Puerto Rico had more than 2.8 million registered voters in the last general election in 2016. In 2028, the electoral commission will decide whether the Internet will be the only way Puerto Ricans can vote. Cities, counties and states across the U.S. are experimenting with letting some people vote on smartphone apps, but none are as sweeping as Puerto Rico's proposal.

BAYOLO: If this bill is approved, it will make Puerto Rico a true outlier. No state or territory trusts an entire electoral infrastructure to vulnerable technology like this one.

BOND: It's unclear why Puerto Rico is ground zero for such a big change in voting. What we know is the bill is backed by the powerful president of Puerto Rico Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz. He didn't respond to NPR's interview request. The text of the bill says the Internet would make voting easier and more accessible. Advocates of online voting say it means more people will vote because it's easier to cast a ballot on a smartphone or computer instead of going to the polls.

BRADLEY TUSK: It's all about turnout.

BOND: Bradley Tusk is founder of Tusk Philanthropies, which has funded a lot of the recent online voting pilot programs. He's not involved in Puerto Rico's plan. Tusk says that in the eight elections so far that have tested technology he's funded, turnout has doubled.

TUSK: It's just basic in the same way that every other technology that removes friction tends do pretty well.

BOND: On the other side of the debate, cybersecurity experts are largely skeptical of online voting, especially after the 2016 presidential election, when Russian hackers tried to get into state election systems.

ALEX HALDERMAN: It should be just common sense that we want to keep ballots as far away from the Internet as we can.

BOND: Alex Halderman is a computer science professor at the University of Michigan who studies election security. He says the technology just doesn't exist to make sure online votes won't be tampered with.

HALDERMAN: We'd have to figure out how to protect server systems from extremely powerful attackers like hostile nation-states. We'd have to protect voters' own devices, their smartphones or PCs.

BOND: The bill's critics also note that voter turnout is already high in Puerto Rico, where election day is a public holiday.

Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.